My friends and colleagues Grit Youngquist and Darleen Simmons ofRamsey County Public Health and the Wakanheza Project pointed out an important distinction about mindfulness. Living in "the moment" is a concept, sometimes fogged by an air of fleeting carelessness, as if we are not taking into account the future repercussions of our current actions. A hangover can be the result of "living in the moment," right? But living in this moment implies that you are right here, present, not distracted by regrets about the past or anxieties about the future. This moment is now, and it quickly becomes history. To live in this moment is strive to be aware of right now.
How many of us see the sun rise and the sun set each day? What happens when you set your intention to witness the sunrise?
I remember seeing the sunset, as if for the first time, when our twins were about 10 months old. We were coming out of a very long winter, and I had loaded the critters into the car for a drive because they were fussy and sleepless and I was at the end of my mama rope. We drove over the crest of a hill near our house and there it was: The sun! A blaze of orange fading, fading, fading before my eyes. A blink and then a haze of peach and violet radiating up, deep indigo falling, falling down from the heavens. Deeper and deeper went the color. The car behind me honked and I was back at the stop sign. Moving through the intersection, I felt a new sense of calm. Today, I can recall that feeling of familiarity and connection, as if I was seeing an old friend for the first time in a long time. The kids were in their seats, happy or unhappy, but there we were and it was ok.
The girls did finally fall asleep, and from that twilight on, it seemed like I had emerged in the world again. I would still be tired and worn out by baby raising, but I was back in the game somehow, like a peice of me had returned.
James Doty, Stanford neurologist and brain surgeon, studies the connection between mindfulness practice and the brain and he is calling for an "age of compassion." I recently heard Doty chat about his memoir,"Into the Magic Shop," on Krista Tippet'sOn Being. Their conversation was like that sunset, it put me back on my feet somehow. Here is the big takeaway:
Turns out that our brains are "plastic"-- the more we practice something, the more it physically changes the brain and its default habits. Negative or positive, our brains are creatures of habit and they default to the stuff we usually do. If you are bullied or usually get into fights, your brain defaults to fear or defensiveness, and, as a consequence, your amygdala, seat of our "flight or flight" response, grows-- by this I mean that it actually enlarges, physically.
If we practice compassion, and openness, instead of what Doty refers to as "tribalism" or the fear of the other (building walls and carpet bombing likely fall into the tribalism category), our brains respond in very tangible ways. The research of Doty and his Stanford colleagues reveals a direct correlation between compassion and health. When we make compassionate choices, set intentions for inclusion and tolerance and practice stress-reduction techniques, we shrink the size of our amygdala, grow our pre-frontal cortex and activate our vagus nerve. Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center researches the impact of compassion on our vagus nerve; this is compelling stuff:
" Vagus is Latin for “wandering,” and the vagus nerve starts at the top of the spinal cord and wanders through your body, through muscles in your neck that help you nod your head and orient your gaze toward other people and vocalize. It then drops down and helps coordinate the interaction between your breathing and your heart rate, then goes into the spleen and liver, where it controls a lot of digestive processes. Recent studies suggest the vagus nerve is related to a stronger immune system response and regulates your inflammation response to disease. This makes the vagus nerve one of the great mind-body nexuses in the human nervous system. Every time you take a deep breath, your heart rate slows down. You see baseball pitchers do this on the mound—they breathe out to calm down, just before they start their windup. The vagus nerve controls that relationship, between the breathing and the calming.
ln our lab, we show participants photos of suffering and distress and find that these images activate the vagus nerve. We’ve also found that if somebody tells you about a sad experience—of, say, their grandparent dying—your vagus nerve fires. If they tell you an inspiring story, their vagus nerve fires. The more you feel compassion, the stronger the vagus nerve response.
We also show our undergraduates images intended to inspire pride—like Berkeley’s Sather Gate or the school mascot—and we find that the more pride they feel, the weaker the vagus nerve response. And that really astounds me. This result tells us that when you feel a strong vagus nerve response, you are feeling common humanity with many different groups. When we’re encouraged to feel strong identification with just our own group and not others, the vagus nerve dims."
Dr. Dacher Keltner
So compassionate and communal thinking and feeling, strengthens the vagus nerve connection between the brain and the heart, reducing inflammation, mitigating stress responses and improving the body's ability to cope with infection and disease. This means that the heart is fundamentally connected to the brain. Take that in for a moment. The brain communicates with the heart. Think of all the imagery and philosophy over centuries that references the heart as the seat of knowledge, enlightenment or truth. An open mind can physically = an open heart.
And can't we take this a step further? Compassionate and communal thinking is not just for "us," is it? We don't live in a human silo. I believe that such practice includes our relationship to the rest of the natural world. If the individual is part and parcel of humanity, and humanity is part and parcel of the greater eco-system, then acts of compassion are acts of greater stewardship.
The Pope's Encyclical andDarwin's theory of "sympathy" are just two examples of deep thinking on the global impacts of compassion. If compassion is a prescription for individual health and wellness, it is also a prescription for stewardship and care of the earth. And the thing is, the earth gives back, right? Doctors now prescribe walks in the park as clinical treatment for obesity, depression, ADD, near-sightedness and more. We take that walk in the park, and we feel better, and we feel more connected and sympathetic towards the earth, increasing our compassion for it, leading, I hope to greater care for it.
Climate change. Vanishing polar bears. War. Terrorism and its many forms. Poverty.
Allina Health has drawn our attention to the fact that teens are way too stressed out-- do we wonder why?The American Heart Associationreports epidemic childhood obesity and diabetes. Our kids spend nearly 8 hours a day in front of an electronic screen. Staggering, scary stuff. Instead of fighting or fleeing, I suggest that we address war, disease, bias, tribalism, intolerance and stress every day by setting the intention to connect to compassion. Smile at a stranger. Speak words of encouragement. Turn off the television and dance. Stop and pick up a peice of garbage. Try to answer anger with an act of kindness. Bear witness to injustice and speak your mind and heart. Listen to a kid. Take a deep breath. Take a walk. Stop for a sunset.
Today I am still 44 years old--circa '71--and I've decided that I am the "age of compassion." Are you?
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!